Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the bill.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the bill. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Lawmaker: It Should Be Easier to Privatize Airport Screening

A bill would include TSA screeners’ pay and benefits in cost comparisons with potential contractors.

One Republican senator wants to make it easier for airports to outsource their passenger screening duties to private companies, instead of using the Transportation Security Administration.

Last week, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the 2018 Screening Partnership Reform Act (S. 3441), which loosens the rules for applications to use contractors to administer airport screenings, shortens the time frame for review and adjusts how cost comparisons are calculated.

Although the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program was established in 2004, 22 airports currently use third party contractors for passenger screening. Four Montana airports withdrew from the program in 2015.

“While the Screening Partnership Program has existed for almost 20 years, only 22 airports participate in the program, despite its safety record and cost-effectiveness,” Lee said in a statement. “This bill would clear some of the bureaucratic red tape surrounding this program in an attempt to unleash the potential cost-saving benefits of these private screening contractors, while also simplifying the application process and improving the efficiency of our screenings.”

Under current law, TSA has 120 days to evaluate an application from an airport to join the Screening Partnership Program to determine whether participation “would not compromise security or detrimentally affect the cost-efficiency or the effectiveness of the screening of passengers or property.” If the agency denies an application, then officials must provide a report to the airport explaining why it was denied, as well as recommendations for how the airport can address the reasons for denial.

Lee’s bill would shorten the evaluation timeline to 30 days, at which point the TSA would need to provide the airport the chance to select a qualified contractor to conduct screening services, or ask that the agency select a company for them. Additionally, if the agency rejects a bid from the company chosen by the airport, the TSA administrator would need to provide the airport with a chance to choose a new company, and would be required to submit a report to the airport and Congress on why the bid was denied.

The bill also would loosen the standards for a contractor to be accepted to provide screening services, primarily by changing how the administrator determines whether it is more cost effective for TSA to conduct screening services or to outsource those duties. Specifically, it calls for TSA to include the total compensation of TSA screeners in that analysis, counting benefits like insurance and Federal Employees Retirement System contributions.

“For the purpose of the comparison of costs . . . the administrator shall incorporate a cost estimate that reflects the total cost to the federal government, including all costs incurred by all federal agencies and not only by the Transportation Security Administration, of providing screening services at an airport,” the bill states.

Lee said the cost estimate methodology in the bill would provide a more accurate picture of whether it is more cost effective to keep screening services at an airport in-house.

“The bill would codify reforms to TSA’s cost estimation process to make it more accurate by including all federal government costs, including government benefits, when assessing how much the government would spend on a contract,” Lee said. “It would allow private screening companies to annually submit recommendations on how to improve the screening processes and also empowers airports to make the decision whether to go with a TSA contract or a TSA-approved private screening company.”